Ruthie Johnson was invited to her first hackathon when she was a first year at UCLA, but the thought of a huge room filled with computers that displayed infinite lines of code initially kept her from attending.
Johnson, a third-year mathematics of computation student, said the idea of going to the event by herself scared her because she knew she would already be a minority. She added she was worried people would think she wasn’t as capable as other participants.
Fay Wu, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, said she wanted to address those doubts and lack of community for women in technology. In the winter, the fourth-year computer science student founded the the Association for Computing Machinery-Women, or ACM-W.
ACM is an international umbrella organization, and UCLA ACM houses other programs such as UCLA Hack, a group that organizes and takes students to hackathons, and ACM Teach, which provides students with technology talks and tutorials.
ACM-W aims to expand its membership this fall and provide a community for women who are interested in technology. The branch will provide events, workshops and socials with a focus on women in technology. Though it is geared toward women, the group will not exclude male or minority students. In addition, ACM and ACM-W welcome experienced computer science students as well as North Campus students who want to learn how to code, Wu said.
According to the Department for Professional Employees, jobs related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics employ 9.35 million workers, but women only hold 32.5 percent of those positions.
Last fall, the group developed a Mentors and Mentees program, or M&Ms, to increase interest and opportunities for its members. Because of its success, Wu decided to establish an official ACM-W branch.
ACM-W members plan to tour SpaceX, a private space technology company, and to attend Codess, a Microsoft event that encourages gender diversity in computer science, said Sharon Grewal, ACM-W vice president and third-year computer science student.
Some members said they think women have always been interested in technology, but they still feel there is an imbalance between men and women in the industry and in computer science classes.
Wu said she used to doubt her choice to study computer science because she was worried she would not fit in.
“There are a lot of little things that show the gender gap in classrooms,” she said. “When (a girl) speaks up in class, everyone turns to look.”
Wu said she she has encountered professors who make discriminating comments against women in technology and faces other subtle aggressions.
Grewal and Johnson said they haven’t experienced any outright hostility toward women in classes, but the gender disparity is obvious.
“There are a lot of women in computer science classes right now, but we don’t really get to meet each other,” Grewal said.
Grewal added she hopes ACM-W will be a space for students to foster a community.
Wu said she thinks ACM-W will make positive progress toward changing the environment for women in technology. The group aims to reach out to high school students to show girls there is a supportive community in STEM fields, she said. For example, the group invited prospective female students interested in engineering to stay over in their dorms on Bruin Day to experience dorm life before attending the engineering open house the following day.
Akshay Bakshi, co-founder of ACM-W and former president of ACM, said he saw a need for women in technology during his term as president and thinks it is important for the future of technology.
“It’s a very simple issue the whole world knows about,” said the fourth-year computer science student. “The amount of time we spend on technology is increasing and the whole technology world has been designed by men. That’s not a world of equality.”
Bakshi said he has heard stories from friends who are treated differently or aren’t given equal attention, but he thinks UCLA is on the right track to improving equality in STEM fields.
Next month, ACM-W members will travel to Texas for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, one of the largest conference for women in technology. The event will allow students to network with women in the technology industry, Grewal said.
ACM-W will have their first general meeting of the year on Thursday in 4760 Boelter Hall at 7 p.m.